Global Policy Forum

High Life in Baghdad's Embargo-Free Street


By Ezzedine Said

Agence France Presse
June 9, 2001

Arasat Street is the "embargo-free" zone of Baghdad, where wealthy punters are spoilt for choice among exclusive restaurants and fashion boutiques that belie 11 years of sanctions against Iraq.

This is where spanking new German and Japanese sedans outnumber the bangers that ply the streets of the rest of Iraq. At Al Mizan (The Scales), bow-tied waiters in red-and-white-striped waistcoats thread their way swiftly around the tables, as fountains and soft lights reflect in a pool outside. "Most of our regular clientele are well-off Iraqis or foreigners," said the manager, Abdel Jaber Al Bahraini.

The average meal price of just over five dollars is way out of reach for most Iraqis, in a country where the average salary in the public sector is less than $10 a month. "Even before the embargo, Iraq did not have restaurants of this standard," said Bahraini, looking back at the days before U.N. sanctions were slapped on oil-rich Iraq for its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Rania, 26, was seated near the pool with three friends for a girls' night out. They were not shy to join male diners seeking company in exchange for a free drink or meal. "I often come here, most of the time for a snack or a cup of coffee," said Rania, who wore heavy makeup, tight black trousers and a blouse with a low neckline.

"I have relatives abroad who send me these clothes, and I only wear them to come to this part of town," said the graduate of Baghdad's school of fine arts. "We've put the embargo behind us. It has turned into a kind of routine."

Having long since adapted to life under sanctions, some diners carried long-range cordless phones that for Iraqis are substitutes for the mobiles that have yet to reach the country.

The upmarket strip started to take shape five years ago but it only really took off three years later, as the embargo began to unravel and a class of nouveau riche emerged from fortunes made in trading with Iraq's neighbors.

Britain and the United States are now trying to tighten a weapons ban on Iraq and controls on smuggling outside a U.N. program, while abolishing the embargo on civilian trade. Iraq has rejected the so-called system of "smart" sanctions that would put the squeeze on the leadership in Baghdad.

While a battle is being waged at the United Nations over the future of sanctions, Baghdadis flock to Arasat Street at night to catch a glimpse of the fancy restaurants or do some window-shopping. "I would need to use up five years worth of savings to bring my family to one of these restaurants," sighed a passing civil servant.

Seated in another restaurant, 43-year-old Khaled Attwan smoked a nargileh, or water pipe, and sipped tea as he retraced his life and recollected a quarter of a century spent in Europe.

"I like it so much in Baghdad, especially in this part of town, that I don't want to go back to France where I've left my wife and son," said Attwan, who returned to his homeland in April 2000.

The Syrian manager of the restaurant, Khaldoun Mjali, explained that "Iraqis want to enjoy themselves, and here in this street they can do that," while acknowledging it was out of reach for Iraq's impoverished middle class.

Outside, waiters shooed off a black-clad old beggar woman as shoeshine boys waited patiently for customers to emerge.

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